For the second straight year the Packers are coming off a postseason loss at the hands of Colin Kaepernick’s feet. Their loss two years ago was like watching a boxer pummeled to the verge of unconsciousness. Kaepernick rushed for QB a playoff record 181 yards, as defensive coordinator Dom Capers inexplicably kept his crew in man-to-man, with their backs turned to a lethal scrambler whom someone should have been spying.
Last season’s loss was a little more bearable. Capers employed more zone concepts, which helped keep eyes on the backfield. But in the sub-zero Lambeau wind chill, Kaepernick still managed 98 yards on seven runs, including an important 42-yarder early, a 24-yarder on 3rd-and-4 in the fourth quarter to set up a touchdown and an 11-yarder on 3rd-and-8 late in the game to effectively ice it. His scrambling marred what was an otherwise sound performance by the Packers defense.
The perception now is that the Packers have a weak defense, something Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy must overcome. The argument here is that this perception is illusionary and that this team, which has made the playoffs five straight years, will capture its second Lombardi Trophy in the post-Favre era because of a resurged defense.
First off, understand: Capers did not suddenly forget how to coach. His unit has had some poor showings on big stages recently, but that’s in part because it has dealt with waves of injuries. The law of averages suggests the Packers are due for better luck in that department. If not, they’re more equipped than ever to persevere; thanks to so many young backups having been forced to play, this is one of the deepest defenses in the NFL.
Capers is from the Dick LeBeau school of thought, having served as the Steelers defensive coordinator in the early 90s, where he and LeBeau (then the Steelers secondary coach) concocted the famed zone blitz. In Green Bay, Capers has evolved into more of a man-based schemer, something he’s done to help support his myriad sub-package blitzes. The Packers still play a lot of matchup zones inside with safeties and linebackers, but their meatiest coverage contributors—cornerbacks—man-up. And, when healthy, they’re all very good at it.
Leading the group: Sam Shields, who has blossomed into an upper-echelon boundary corner. Shields’ new four-year, $39 million contract ($12.5 million signing bonus) is a recompense for his ability to compete one-on-one with bona fide No. 1 wideouts, which is crucial in a division featuring Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey.
At one point it looked like Tramon Williams would become this caliber of lockdown corner. A persistent shoulder problem in recent years has been a hindrance. Last season, though, Williams looked fresher, even showing a newfound ability to man the slot. An increasingly savvy veteran, Williams is very good at disguising coverages (like the Cover 2 trap where he made the game-winning interception against Tony Romo in Week 15).
Williams won’t have to man the slot as much if Casey Hayward, one of the league’s brighter young playmakers, avoids the hamstring issues that plagued him in 2013. Hayward’s return relegates Davon House, a player good enough to start for most teams, to dime duties. And, it could push Micah Hyde to free safety.
Whatever position Hyde is slated, expect him to line up near the line of scrimmage in many of Capers’s sub-packages. Hyde has supple body control near traffic and a sixth sense for the ball, a la Charles Woodson, who redefined this defense in the late 2000s by becoming what amounted to a finesse linebacker, capable of blitzing, attacking the run or jumping routes in underneath coverage.
Playing Hyde at free safety in the base 3-4 and then moving him to the box in the nickel 2-4-5 or even the 3-3-5 would allow the Packers to bring rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix off the bench as a sub-package free safety. That’d be a great way to bring the first-rounder along gradually. Clinton-Dix’s centerfielding prowess will allow Morgan Burnett, the every-down strong safety, to focus more on playing downhill. A good barometer of how comfortable the Packers are with Clinton-Dix this year will be how often they call something other than their staple “2-man” coverages (i.e. man-to-man with both safeties over the top) in obvious passing situations. One could theorize that GM Ted Thompson drafted Clinton-Dix primarily to let Capers get away from this conservative coverage.
Then again, the signing of Julius Peppers suggests that “2-man” could be sticking around. It’s an incredibly formidable coverage if there’s a potent pass-rush in front of it. Even with Clay Matthews, the best pure edge-skimmer in the league, Green Bay’s pass rush has been nothing to marvel at as of late. (That might be why Capers has been so dynamic with his blitz concepts.) If Peppers, who is 34 and looked every bit his age with the Bears last season, becomes anything close to his old self playing in a new standup outside backer role, this defense suddenly becomes lethal on both edges. Because no matter how good Peppers is, Matthews will be the offense’s focal point for double-teams and protection slides. And if offenses want to double both rushers, they’ll be keeping backs and tight ends to block. Against a man-based defense, that’s an invitation for green-dog blitzes, something inside backers Brad Jones and especially A.J. Hawk have become very good at.
The fact that Peppers was brought in tells you everything about what the team thinks of Nick Perry’s development. The 2012 first-round pick has, so far, turned out to be just a solid all-around reserve player, nothing more. The Packers may actually feel that undrafted second-year pro Andy Mulumba has a brighter future than Perry.
One of those two will spell Peppers or occasionally line up behind him when he moves down to defensive end. The Packers claim Peppers will regularly play some defensive end, but it’s hard to see where they’ll find his reps. They’ll have mounds of fresher players to choose from. There’s still 2010 second-rounder Mike Neal, who wasn’t awful in an expanded standup role last season. And this year Ted Thompson spent a third-round pick on Khyri Thornton, which, frankly, was head-scratching considering there’s also new base 3-4 starter Mike Daniels plus last year’s first-round pick Datone Jones.
And those were just the defensive ends. At defensive tackle, B.J. Raji re-signed for one year, $4 million, with the hope that he’ll go back to fulfilling his Pro Bowl potential now that he’s returning to a true nose tackle role. Working with Raji will be free agent pickup Letroy Guion, who has been sideline this camp and is inconsistent but has good initial quickness, and second-year man Josh Boyd, who offers a good enough burst to warrant regular snaps.
This unit may not be two-deep at every position like the defense, but it’s still has a rich collection of talent. It will be interesting to see what kind of offense Mike McCarthy chooses to have. Last season, the Packers were very balanced—if not outright “run oriented”—featuring Eddie Lacy, who averaged 21 carries and 86 yards a game after Week 2. One might think Lacy only became the bell cow because guys like Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn (who re-signed) were manning the quarterback post for much of that time. But even before Aaron Rodgers’ injury, and continuing after Rodgers returned, Lacy posted these kinds of numbers. In fact, he averaged more carries a game with Rodgers at the helm than he did with all the backups.
That doesn’t mean things will remain this way.
Rodgers, who has slimmed down in an effort to gain more flexibility and avoid injury, is arguably the best quarterback in the NFC (if not the NFL). He has the quick release and presnap awareness to beat teams through structured play design, though he’s most dangerous when extending the play (something that looks improvised but for him is often structured, as well).
It will be difficult for McCarthy to resist the temptation of simply leaning on his megastar quarterback, especially since that quarterback has weapons to throw to. While Jordy Nelson, the king of back-shoulder receptions, is clearly Green Bay’s No. 1 receiver (especially after he started moving around and aligning more in the slot last year), the man Rodgers likes to look for when things break down is Randall Cobb. If Cobb, who missed 10 games in 2013 with a broken fibula, can stay healthy, the Packers will eventually morph into a multidimensional offense, featuring the dynamic fourth-year pro more out of the backfield and off unconventional sprint out motion (like what the Eagles did with DeSean Jackson last year).
The Packers once upon a time had another movable chess piece in Jermichael Finley, though a frightening neck injury changed the lanky tight end’s fortunes. Andrew Quarless has proven an adequate starter in his place, capable of flexing out in McCarthy’s predominant spread three-receiver sets. But to ensure no further voids at tight end, Ted Thompson spent a third-round pick on Cal’s Richard Rodgers. That came a round after the selection of wideout Davante Adams, who will compete with developing route runner Jarrett Boykin for James Jones’s old No. 3 receiver job.
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What could discourage the innovative McCarthy from overusing his potentially lethal aerial assault is the shakiness of Green Bay’s offensive line. Though left tackle David Bakhtiari improved dramatically down the stretch of his rookie season, and though run-blocking dynamo Josh Sitton is among the top all-around left guards in football, this line will still need to be helped. Bryan Bulaga at right tackle is a question mark coming off an ACL injury. Right guard T.J. Lang has physical limitations, while the center duties will fall to either fifth-round rookie Corey Linsley or, more likely at this point, last year’s fourth-rounder J.C. Tretter, who is coming off a broken ankle and, like his rookie competitor, has never played a professional snap.
The way to help an O-line is to stay balanced in play-calling and make use of play-action and chip-blocks. McCarthy does this as well as anyone in the game, and he has a quarterback who can help compensate for whatever leakage still occurs. Put it all together and you have an offense capable of finishing in the top five and joining its defense in Phoenix come February.
Kicker Mason Crosby overcame his prolonged slump with a bounce back 2013 season where he was successful on five of seven field goals from 50 or more yards. In the punting game, Tim Masthay doesn’t haven’t the biggest leg, but he gets decent ball placement and will benefit from a coverage unit that should be stronger. Returning punts and kicks is Micah Hyde, who has home run potential.
There’s not a deeper, more talented all-around team in the NFC. If the Packers can earn home field advantage (i.e. avoid traveling to Seattle), they’ll reach the Super Bowl.